From Harold Garfinkel,
Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall,
1967, pp. 38-44, 75.
Some essential features of
dictate that common understandings cannot possibly consist of a
measured amount of shared agreement among persons on certain topics.
Even if the topics are limited in number and scope and every practical
difficulty of assessment is forgiven, the notion that we are dealing
with an amount of shared agreement remains essentially incorrect.
This may be demonstrated as follows.
asked to report common conversations by writing on the left side
of a sheet what the parties actually said and on the right side
what they and their partners understood that they were talking about.
A student reported the following colloquy between himself and his
succeeded in putting a penny in a parking meter today without
being picked up.
afternoon as I was bringing Dana, our four-year-old son, home
from the nursery school, he succeeded in reaching high enough
to put a penny in a parking meter when we parked in a meter
parking zone, whereas before he has always had to be picked
take him to the record store?
put a penny in a meter that means that you stopped while he
was with you. I know that you stopped at the record store either
on the way to get him or on the way back. Was it on the way
back, so that he was with you or did you stop there on the
the shoe repair shop.
||No, I stopped
at the record store on the way to get him and stopped at the
shoe repair shop on the way home when he was with me.
of one reason why you might have stopped at the shoe repair
shop. Why did you in fact?
||I got some
new shoe laces for my shoes.
will remember I broke a shoe lace on one of my brown oxfords
the other day so I stopped to get some new laces.
need new heels badly.
else you could have gotten that I was thinking of. You could
have taken in your black loafers which need heels badly. You'd
better get them taken care of pretty soon.
of the colloquy reveals the following. (a) There were many matters
that the partners understood they were talking about that they did
not mention. (b) Many matters that the partners understood were
understood on the basis not only of what was actually said but what
was left unspoken. Many matters were understood through a process
of attending to the temporal series of utterances as documentary
evidences of a developing conversation rather than as a string of
terms. (d) Matters that the two understood in common were understood
only in and through a course of understanding work that consisted
of treating an actual linguistic event as "the document of,"
as "pointing to," as standing on behalf of an underlying
pattern of matters that each already supposed to be the matters
that the person, by his speaking, could be telling the other about.
The underlying pattern was not only derived from a course of individual
documentary evidences but the documentary evidences in their turn
were interpreted on the basis of "what was known" and
anticipatorily knowable about the underlying patterns.  Each
was used to elaborate the other. (e) In attending to the utterances
as events-in-the-conversation each party made references to the
biography and prospects of the present interaction which each used
and attributed to the other as a common scheme of interpretation
and expression. (f) Each waited for something more to be said in
order to hear what had previously been talked about, and each seemed
willing to wait.
would consist of a measured amount of shared agreement if the common
understandings consisted of events coordinated with the successive
positions of the hands of the clock. i.e., of events in standard
time. The foregoing results, because they deal with the exchanges
of the colloquy as events-in-a-conversation, urge that one more
time parameter, at least, is required: the role of time as it is
constitutive of "the matter talked about" as a developing
and developed event over the course of action that produced it,
as both the process and product were known from within this development
by both parties, each for himself as well as on behalf of the other.
reveals additional features. (1) Many of its expressions are such
that their sense cannot be decided by an auditor unless he knows
or assumes something about the biography and the purposes of the
speaker, the circumstances of the utterance the previous course
of the conversation, or the particular relationship of actual or
potential interaction that exists between user and auditor. The
expressions do not have a sense that remains identical through the
changing occasions of their use. (2) The events that were talked
about were specifically vague. Not only do they not frame a clearly
restricted set of possible determinations but the depicted events
include as their essentially intended and sanctioned features an
accompanying "fringe" of determinations that are open
with respect to internal relationships, relationships to other events,
and relationships to retrospective and prospective possibilities.
(3) For the sensible character of an expression, upon its occurrence
each of the conversationalists as auditor of his own as well as
the other's productions had to assume as of any present accomplished
point in the exchange that by waiting for what he or the other person
might have said at a later time the present significance of what
had already been said would have been clarified. Thus many expressions
had the property of being progressively realized and realizable
through the further course of the conversation. (4) It hardly needs
to be pointed out that the sense of the expressions depended upon
where the expression occurred in serial order, the expressive character
of the terms that comprised it, and the importance to the conversationalists
of the events depicted.
of common understandings stand in contrast to the features they
would have if we disregarded their temporally constituted character
and treated them instead as precoded entries on a memory drum, to
be consulted as a definite set of alternative meanings from among
which one was to select, under predecided conditions that specified
in which of some set of alternative ways one was to understand the
situation upon the occasion that the necessity for a decision arose.
The latter properties are those of strict rational discourse as
these are idealized in the rules that define an adequate logical
For the purposes
of conducting their everyday affairs persons refuse to permit each
other to understand "what they are really talking about"
in this way. The anticipation that persons will understand, the
occasionality of expressions, the specific vagueness of references,
the retrospective-prospective sense of a present occurrence, waiting
for something later in order to see what was meant before, are sanctioned
properties of common discourse. They furnish a background of seen
but unnoticed features of common discourse whereby actual utterances
are recognized as events of common, reasonable, understandable,
plain talk. Persons require these properties of discourse as conditions
under which they are themselves entitled and entitle others to claim
that they know what they are talking about, and that what they are
saying is understandable and ought to be understood. In short, their
seen but unnoticed presence is used to entitle persons to conduct
their common conversational affairs without interference. Departures
from such usages call forth immediate attempts to restore a right
state of affairs.
character of these properties is demonstrable as follows. Students
were instructed to engage an acquaintance or a friend in an ordinary
conversation and, without indicating that what the experimenter
was asking was in any way unusual, to insist that the person clarify
the sense of his commonplace remarks. Twenty-three students reported
twenty-five instances of such encounters. The following are typical
excerpts from their accounts.
The subject was telling the experimenter, a member of the subject's
car pool, about having had a flat tire while going to work the previous
(S) I had a
(E) What do
you mean, you had a flat tire?
momentarily stunned. Then she answered in a hostile way: "What
do you mean, 'What do you mean?' A flat tire is a flat tire. That
is what I meant. Nothing special. What a crazy question!"
(S) Hi, Ray. How is your girl friend feeling?
(E) What do
you mean, "How is she feeling?" Do you mean physical or
(S) I mean how
is she feeling? What's the matter with you? (He looked peeved.)
Just explain a little clearer what do you mean?
(S) Skip it.
How are your Med School applications coming?
(E) What do
you mean, "How are they?"
(S) You know
what I mean.
(E) I really
(S) What's the
matter with you? Are you sick?
"On Friday night my husband and I were watching television.
My husband remarked that he was tired. I asked, 'How are you tired?
Physically, mentally, or just bored?'"
(S) I don't
know, I guess physically, mainly.
mean that your muscles ache or your bones?
(S) I guess
so. Don't be so technical.(After
more watching )
(S) All these
old movies have the same kind of old iron bedstead in them.
do you mean? Do you mean all old movies, or some of them, or just
the ones you have seen?
(S) What's the
matter with you? You know what I mean.
(E) I wish you
would be more specific.
know what I mean! Drop dead!
During a conversation (with the E's female fiancee) the E questioned
the meaning of various words used by the subject . . .
For the first
minute and a half the subject responded to the questions as if they
were legitimate inquiries. Then she responded with "Why are
you asking me those questions?" and repeated this two or three
times after each question. She became nervous and jittery, her face
and hand movements . . .uncontrolled. She appeared bewildered and
complained that I was making her nervous and demanded that I "Stop
it". . . . The subject picked up a magazine and covered her
face. She put down the magazine and pretended to be engrossed. When
asked why she was looking at the magazine she closed her mouth and
refused any further remarks.
My friend said to me, "Hurry or we will be late." I asked
him what did he mean by late and from what point of view did it
have reference. There was a look of perplexity and cynicism on his
face. "Why are you asking me such silly questions? Surely I
don't have to explain such a statement. What is wrong with you today?
Why should I have to stop to analyze such a statement? Everyone
understands my statements and you should be no exception!"
The victim waved his hand cheerily.
(S) How are
(E) How am I
in regard to what? My health, my finances, my school work, my peace
of mind, my . . . ?
(S) (Red in
the face and suddenly out of control.) Look I was just trying to
be polite. Frankly, I don't give a damn how you are.
My friend and I were talking about a man whose overbearing attitude
annoyed us. My friend expressed his feeling.
(S) I'm sick
(E) Would you
explain what is wrong with you that you are sick?
(S) Are you
kidding me? You know what I mean.
(E) Please explain
(S) (He listened
to me with a puzzled look.) What came over you? We never talk this
way, do we?
I have been arguing that a concern for the nature, production, and
recognition of reasonable, realistic, and analyzable actions is
not the monopoly of philosophers and professional sociologists.
Members of a society are concerned as a matter of course and necessarily
with these matters both as features and for the socially managed
production of their everyday affairs. The study of common sense
knowledge and common sense activities consists of treating as problematic
phenomena the actual methods whereby members of a society, doing
sociology, lay or professional, make the social structures of everyday
activities observable. The "rediscovery" of common sense
is possible perhaps because professional sociologists, like members,
have had too much to do with common sense knowledge of social structures
as both a topic and a resource for their inquiries and not enough
to do with it only and exclusively as sociology's programmatic topic.
 Karl Mannheim, in his essay "On the Interpretation of 'Weltanschhuung'
" (in Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, trans. and ed.
Paul Kecskemeti (New York: Oxford University Press, 1952), pp. 33-83),
referred to this work as the "documentary method of interpretation."
Its features are detailed in Chapter Three.